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Black Flags: The Rise of Isis by Joby Warrick

September 17, 2016


Even with fifteen years gone by, it may take another several decades to understand the full effects of the September 11, 2001 attacks. It’s clearly the catalytic geopolitical moment of the early part of this century. Today, ripples from 9/11 play out in the Syrian catastrophe, the rise of ISIS and the developing proxy war between the U.S. and Russia. While the attacks on that day were horrendous, the damage was compounded by the reaction of the United States and the mistakes we made in the subsequent years. In this Pullitzer-prize-winning book, Joby Warrick traces the path from 9/11 to the current situation, focusing on the rise of the Islamic State.

The three biggest rationales for the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq—1) a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida, 2) Iraq’s role in 9/11 and 3) weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—all proved false. But within the attempt by the Bush administration to rationalize its decision to go to war, it made another false claim that would seem relatively minor until a decade later. In trying to connect Iraq to Al Qaida, it pinpointed a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the link. Zarqawi was indeed an Islamist militant and had operated a training camp in Afghanistan, but he had no connection to Osama bin Laden or Al Qaida. To the average American hearing Zarqawi’s name for the first time when Colin Powell spoke it in his fateful U.N. testimony, it would have meant nothing more than a detail to make the claim of a connection seem more legitimate. But the false claim did something much more important for Zarqawi. It made him famous. In that one instant, this obscure Jordanian militant was now one of the great heroes of jihad, someone like-minded militants could rally around. In that moment, we were a kingmaker of the wrong sort.

Warrick details Zarqawi’s background, his dream of an ultra-conservative Islamic caliphate, his rise to power in the Middle East and how the invasion of Iraq and the ensuing mistakes (disbanding of Iraqi army, deBaathification, failure to provide adequate security, failure to provide basic utilities, shooting of demonstrators in Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, etc.) turned the situation into the perfect cauldron of chaos for Zarqawi’s campaign. Initially, his goal was not organization; it was destabilization. The Americans served their purpose in breaking the country. After that, Zarqawi just needed to ignite a civil war.

Zarqawi was killed in an airstrike in 2006, but his movement carried on, finding another catalyzing moment in the chaos of the Arab Spring. The Bush administration’s great mistake had been to get into Iraq. The Obama Administration’s was to stay out and let the situation fester. But the U.S. was war-weary country and Obama had political campaign promises to live up to. The gains of the 2007-08 surge were largely lost and the total collapse of Syria again provided the kind of chaos in which the jihadists thrived. They re-emerged under the black banner of ISIS (also ISIL or Daesh) and seized a massive territory in Syria and northern Iraq. Videos of beheadings and other atrocities became commonplace. Stories of misery under the caliphate’s barbaric laws leaked out. And the political situation got very, very messy.

There is a line that describes ISIS as “good butchers but bad soldiers.” This is both hopeful and foreboding. Hopeful in that they can be taken out with a unified, concerted effort by any competent military force. But until the will is there, they will continue their butchery.

Warrick draws on a wide range of sources, from high-level CIA agents and former agents to foreigners on the ground (the Jordanian sources contribute heavily to an understanding of Zarqawi). This is a gripping story, and unfortunately it is not fiction. The clear narrative here is that despite our desire to stay out of the Syrian hornet’s nest, we are responsible for it. One source, speaking of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current, brutal leader of ISIS, said “Had it not been for the U.S. Invasion of Iraq, the Islamic State’s greatest butcher likely would have lived out his years as a college professor.”

There are no easy solutions. In hindsight, there were multiple opportunities to snuff out ISIS before it got a foothold. In hindsight, there were moments that re-engaging would have been a much easier task than it would be today. In hindsight, the failures of the Iraq endeavor will extend far beyond the borders and timeframe of that war. Pundits want to point fingers and argue whose fault this mess is, as if that matters. They will out-rightly deny the facts of history and make up their own history if it helps make their point. When the story can become so skewed based on one’s particular political lens, it’s important to have factual account of what actually happened and why. This is an important book in understanding the truth of how we got to now.

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